The businesses that ordinarily pack thousands of workers into the gleaming towers of London’s Canary Wharf have paid little heed to the government’s recent calls to get staff back to the office.
On an overcast weekday, the few people walking along the streets of the financial district in the east of the capital were casually dressed for shopping rather than a day at a desk in the headquarters of a bank or a law firm.
In pre-coronavirus times, the glass-domed entrance to the tube station spat out a stream of suit-clad workers during the morning rush hour and swallowed them up again each evening, but numbers have slowed to a trickle.
“We used to have a long queue in summer,” says Jaya Lama, at a Vietnamese food stall, Velo. “It’s worrying because it is slow everywhere.”
That view was echoed by Dilma Garcia, standing behind the counter at Joe Blake’s coffee stand in one of the shopping malls. “We were busy for a while when everything else was shut. People who were on furlough were coming for a coffee. But today was especially quiet.”
It is estimated that only about 10,000 of the 120,000 workers based in Canary Wharf have returned to their offices, despite the Canary Wharf Group, which owns the private estate, bringing in new safety measures in an effort to entice employees back.
Sir George Iacobescu, seen as responsible for the transformation of London’s Docklands from a wasteland to a leading financial centre, and now the executive chairman of Canary Wharf Group, said the number of office workers and local residents returning to the area was increasing steadily, but added: “Now is the time for the rest of the businesses at Canary Wharf to come back.”
He said: “We are looking to government now to give the signal that people should start returning to the office. We’d like the advice on public transport to change to say avoid travelling at peak times rather than avoid public transport altogether. We have put in place all the measures to bring large numbers of office workers back safely and maintain social distancing.”
Iacobescu believes a return to work is important. “Our cities around the country need office workers back to support all the businesses that rely on them – not just retail and bars and restaurants, but the whole supply chain of small businesses.”
The group has installed signs and created a one-way system for pedestrians to manage high footfall if and when large numbers of people return. It is also regularly cleaning public areas and will manage the towers’ lifts to ensure social distancing.
The group, which is owned by Canada’s Brookfield Property Partners and the Qatar Investment Authority, hopes more tenants and their staff will return to their workplaces during the summer. Yet few employers have rushed to get staff back into their shiny corporate headquarters after several months of working from home .
The vast majority of people commute to the area using public transport, and many workers remain hesitant about using the tube and trains for health reasons. Canary Wharf Group is now looking at other ways to bring workers into the district – located on a bend in the river Thames – such as requesting additional river boat services, and providing more car and bike parking.
The lack of office workers is causing financial difficulties for businesses that rely on them for trade. Some employees at businesses that in pre-pandemic times would have served hundreds of people per day were whiling away the time between customers by reading a book or doing a crossword, while several independent retailers and coffee shops remain closed.
David James, the owner of the cobbler chain James Shoe Care and City of London Dry Cleaners, said the Canary Wharf Group, his landlord, had been supportive during the lockdown, but takings at the branches he has reopened had collapsed because of the absence of passing trade.
“We previously had a captive audience, but now they have left. I have had this business for 40 years, it has been my life,” he said.
If the workers do not return by the end of the year, James worries his business will not survive. He is not sure he will be able to keep all of his branches, or keep on all of his staff when the furlough scheme ends, and says the sector needs more government support.
Before the crisis, lunchtime in Canary Wharf would have been a rush of workers grabbing sandwiches and takeaway salads to eat with colleagues on benches or green spaces dotted around the estate.
Instead a sole guitar player strummed tunes to a group of parents and toddlers picnicking on a lawn while seagulls squawked in the distance.
Despite the quiet atmosphere, Canary Wharf is banking on an return to the office. It has submitted a planning application to construct several new buildings that will contain 2.5m sq ft of office space, as well as homes and shops.